Rash of civilian vacancies at SDPD is swelling overtime and causing uniformed officers to do lower-level work
Police chief says the department needs ‘civilianization,’ and labor leaders say large raises are necessary to fill the jobs.
The San Diego Police Department is suffering from a rash of vacancies in civilian jobs that is reducing parking citation revenue and swelling overtime costs by causing higher-paid uniformed officers to perform lower-level administrative work.
A recent increase in police officer vacancies has gotten significant attention — there are now more than 200 — but the labor union representing civilian police workers says that problem is being compounded by similar problems among civilian staff.
Staffing gains from large pay raises given in 2017 have been mostly reversed in recent months.
The department has 32 dispatcher vacancies, 31 unfilled jobs for parking enforcement officers and 113 vacancies in investigative aide and resource officer jobs, according to the Municipal Employees Association.
The union says it’s particularly concerning that vacancies in dispatcher, investigative aide and resource officer jobs have more than doubled since 2019, while the number of vacancies for uniformed officers is up only 13 percent since then.
“We’ve got some longer-term trends here that are clearly causing higher-paid, essentially overqualified sworn officers to do work that was being done, could be done and should be done in the future by civilian positions,” said Mike Zucchet, the union’s general manager. “You’ve got officers now doing the work that those civilians were doing, which contributes to overtime.”
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The problem is even more striking in the number of parking enforcement officers needed. Plans last spring to hire 20 more workers never materialized, and vacancies have risen since then to 11 from five, Zucchet said.
“You’re missing out on what each parking enforcement officer generates in revenue for the city — $350,000 a year,” said Zucchet, who noted that citation revenue is down $2.3 million this fiscal year. “Because those jobs are not filled, it’s causing a hole in your budget.”
Police Chief David Nisleit acknowledged the problem during a City Council budget hearing Feb. 27 and said he would prefer to have civilians doing many tasks that officers now must perform because of vacancies.
Those tasks include handling misdemeanor arrests, processing public records requests and redacting names from documents released by the department.
“We’re looking at ‘civilianization,’” Nisleit said. “We’re looking at trying to be more effective and more efficient on who does the work. But until those positions can be filled, the work still has to be completed.”
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Nisleit said it’s disappointing the city hasn’t refilled many civilian police jobs that were cut from 2008 to 2010 after the severe recession of that time sharply reduced city tax revenue. Investigative aides and resource officers handle lower-level cases such as property crimes, cold cases, vandalism and non-injury crashes.
“Every single person we could get would in turn put an officer back out into the field,” he said.
Using higher-paid uniformed officers to accomplish those tasks has swelled the Police Department’s overtime budget this fiscal year.
The department already had spent $21.3 million of its $40.2 million overtime budget through November, the fifth month of the 12 in the fiscal year. City officials now project overtime spending will be $9.2 million over budget.
Nisleit said some of the overtime can be attributed to a greater focus on violent crime and to the vacancies among officers requiring a smaller uniformed staff to cover more shifts.
He said a major challenge in solving the civilian vacancy problem is San Diego’s relatively low pay compared with other cities and law enforcement agencies.
“A lot of the positions, we’re just not competitive in the marketplace,” he said.
A salary survey that city officials conducted in January indicated that civilian police employees in San Diego make much less than their counterparts in 19 comparable cities and government agencies.
Based on median salaries, dispatchers earn 10.6 percent less, parking enforcement officers 9.9 percent less, police resource officers 16.9 percent less and police dispatchers 31.5 percent less.
Zucchet said city officials must significantly boost compensation for civilian police workers and then prioritize filling the vacant jobs.
City Council members mostly agreed.
“We need the pay and benefit packages for these positions to be much more than they currently are,” Councilwoman Vivian Moreno said. “The sooner we take these steps, the faster we can solve the overtime problem.”